Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Benjamin Britten 2: Castleton Festival Opera

The 81-year-old conductor Lorin Maazel, who recently retired from his post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, has had a long and controversial career. In a Sunday London Times article from 2009, Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote:
"Despite his six-year tenure at the helm of America's most famous orchestra, despite his formidable career, Maazel has had an almost comically bad relationship with the critical establishment. For two decades, he has been the conductor that the critics have loved to hate, a target of some of the most vitriolic and entertaining name-calling in recent musical history. “His efficient concerts,” read one review, “have the heart and soul of a sausage machine.” Maazel is a “vulgarian”, “imperious”, “greedy”, a “latter-day Napoleon”, “a little man with a big ego”, the “widely detested conductor of the New York Philharmonic”.
I had never heard the man conduct live before last week's run of two Britten operas at UC Berkeley, but after those musically sloppy performances, I am ready to join the bashing crowd.

Maestro Maazel has done rather well for himself, and lives with his third wife Dietlinde on a 600-acre estate in the rural town of Castleton, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. Two years ago, they started the Castleton Music Festival, which according to their website features:
"an intimate and acoustically superb Theatre House, sitting on the foundations of what was once a large-scale chicken coop...In recent years, the Foundation's work has focused most prominently on the growth of young artists; advanced students and emerging professionals on the cusp of major careers. Starting with the Castleton Residency, a program launched in 2006, such artists have come annually to Castleton Farms to live and work together intensively under the inspiring guidance of Maestro Maazel, producing a series of chamber opera productions in the intimate Theatre House."

Their first four productions were all deliberately composed for small ensembles and theatres by Benjamin Britten in the 1940s and 1950s: "The Turn of the Screw," "The Rape of Lucretia," "Albert Herring" and a reorchestration of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera." The Festival went on tour with their productions of "Lucretia" and "Albert Herring" to UC Berkeley last week using their original casts of "emerging professionals," while employing a pickup orchestra featuring members of the Berkeley Orchestra. Unfortunately, the four performances were presented at Zellerbach Hall, which seats over 2,000 people, instead of the far more suitable 500-seat Zellerbach Playhouse next door. The results were that the acoustics were all over the place depending on your seat, and the intimate operas got lost.

It also didn't help that the staging by director William Kerley was conservative, dumb, and consistently clumsy in both productions. In "The Rape of Lucretia," the Male and Female Narrators are supposed to provide a Christian framework for a tale about Evil destroying Good and its repercussions -- the Romans supposedly kicked out the Etruscans as their rulers, using Lucretia's rape and suicide as the catalyst. In the original production (Peter Pears and the extraordinary contralto Kathleen Ferrier in her operatic stage debut as Lucretia, pictured above with Britten), the two narrators stood to the side of stage left and right. In the Castleton production, Vale Rideout and Arianna Zukerman were directed to interact in the middle of the stage with the actors of the Roman tale, and instead of being provocative it just looked ridiculous. They both had lovely voices, but Zukerman looked like she was searching for a lost sandwich half the time, and Rideout looked like he belonged in a different opera.

Even worse was the actual rape scene where the sexy baritone Matthew Worth as Tarquinius (above) was staged to look as if he was more in lust with the gauze surrounding Lucretia's bed than with Lucretia herself. After tearing down the gauze and hugging it, he upended the prop bed and the two singers laid down behind it so that one could see an occasional body part flying above the bed like a Looney Tunes cartoon fight. The scene ended with poor Mr. Worth dragging the bed off the stage with Ekaterina Metlova hiding behind it, looking all the while like he was going to have a hernia. It recalls a story from Britten's contemporary composer friend, Michael Tippett, who saw the opera performed once in Italy:
"The curtain is supposed to fall just as the rape begins, but on this occasion it stuck, leaving the singer playing Tarquinius utterly at a loss. And he didn't get on with the rape, and then suddenly there were shouts from the audience: 'Coraggio, coraggio!' It was marvelous! But I would never have told Ben that."

"Albert Herring," written a year after "Lucretia," is a village comedy about a shy mama's boy who momentarily breaks away from his loneliness as part of a semi-disastrous May King festival. The Castleton Festival Opera production, again directed by William Kerley, was ugly, plodding, overemphatic, and not funny. I felt sorry for all the poor singers, except for Andres Beck-Ruiz as the child Harry, who was natural, funny and sweet-voiced onstage.

One of the oddities of this tour is that it felt a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle in that there are plenty of small operatic ensembles in the Bay Area who have performed these works at a much higher artistic level than what was on display in Zellerbach. The Merola and Adler "young professionals" programs at the San Francisco Opera have produced both operas at the tiny Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason, and the results were enchanting. In fact, I ran into Sheri Greenawald at the opening night of "Lucretia," and told her I much preferred her production of about five years ago featuring Elza van den Heever and Eugene Brancoveanu. "Me too," she replied. (For more on these performances from the always interesting Patrick Vaz, click here and here.)

Most of all, it angered me that people unfamiliar with Britten's operas went away from these performances thinking his work is dull and insipid. It is not. Britten's first major opera, the 1945 "Peter Grimes," strikes me as the last great Verdi opera, complete with huge orchestra, large choruses, arias, ensembles, and dozens of characters. It was a controversial success at the time, but there was no real template for an internationally successful British opera composer since there hadn't been one since Purcell and Handel centuries earlier. It took great courage, then, to change course in 1946 and write for small forces, eight singers and twelve instrumentalists, in "The Rape of Lucretia." Though the verse libretto by Ronald Duncan is probably the worst Britten ever worked from, he still managed to create a musical masterpiece. (Has a harp ever sounded as sinister as it does throughout "Lucretia" or as patriotically pompous as it often does in "Albert Herring"?)

Duncan, in his memoir, wrote:
"Britten reminded me of his ambition to write an opera which would return to the limitations and economy of means which, since Mozart, had been lost in the Wagnerian circus. He saw there were advantages in writing for a small orchestra and looked forward to tackling the problems of obtaining a full musical effect with fewer instruments. He thought it possible that a greater intensity and clarity might be obtained."
And he was right.


doug said...

What a compelling and well written review. I happen to agree with every word, too. Thanks!!

Civic Center said...

Dear Doug: Thanks a lot. It was a lot of work, but I really felt the need to stick up for Britten when there seemed to be so many (free ticket) Goldstar newcomers in the audience who had no clue about his music.

doug said...

Hey Mike, I noticed that you've mentioned thinking highly of Albert Herring. I am new to the opera. While I can see it being fun for an audience of Britten's time and seaside location, it baffles me how/if this still translates. Can you help me understand what you see in it? I'd like to appreciate it along with Britten's many other wonderful operas. Thanks!

Henry Holland said...

Can you help me understand what you see in it?

You didn't ask me, but I'll try. :-)

There's the obvious: it's got a wonderful libretto by Eric Crozier and Britten's music is fabulous, full of great tunes, toe-tapping rhythms and his usual brilliant orchestration. It's also pretty regie-proof and the cast doesn't need to be able to sing Tristan or Isolde, but to be good singers who can act.

Ever had a job you didn't like? Ever wanted to smack a boss upside the head but didn't? Ever had a parent who you loved dearly but who drove you crazy at times? Ever love someone who a) barely knows you exist and b) is madly in love with someone else? Ever feel like breaking out of your routine and doing something uncharacteristic? Ever felt grief at someone dying? Ever gotten drunk? Ever lost your virginity?

I imagine you'd answer "Yes" to some of those, so what difference does the time and place of the piece matter, so what if it references things that are no longer around or foreign to Americans like May Queen Festivals? I'm certain that you're able to overlook the fact that you're not a god living in Valhalla or a kept woman in Paris in the 1850's when you listen to Das Rheingold or La Traviata.

I hope none of that comes across as harsh -I'm laughing as I type this- but seriously, see if you can find a copy of the libretto and read it, it's a wonderful example of the art of libretto writing. If the music doesn't work for you, oh well, nothing anyone can do about that, right? :-)

Civic Center said...

Dear Doug: What Henry Holland said. And of course it's the music. I'm pretty sure Verdi's "Falstaff" was the model, and when the ensemble clicks with enough rehearsal and the right combination of players, "Albert Herring" is a great musical machine. Britten was an brilliant musical parodist, and he has lots of fun with throwaway jokes that pop throughout the score. It's a very rich piece.

doug said...

Thanks Henry and SF Mike. I will listen more carefully to the score and hope to catch a more worthwhile production some day. The story struck me as a bit too simple and syrupy for my tastes as is, of course, true of many operas. What Henry calls regie I might well call revelatory, but I get the point. Thanks again for taking the time to shed some light.